Things are going wrong already. The three main actors, Tim Russell, Sue Scott, and Tom Keith, missed a connecting flight and are stuck in the Memphis airport. Today's supposed to be the day they run through the script at the Civic Auditorium to see what doesn't work. Instead, they're catching a cab to see Graceland.
A TV station and four or five newspaper reporters and photographers are the only audience for the musical rehearsals. Everyone wants to talk to Keillor, but PHC marketing director Tiffany Hanssentall, thin, gorgeous, with short, dark hair, she seems like an especially businesslike spriteis discouraging about the possibility of that happening at all. He'll be busy right up to showtime, she says. She says the stage works well for the show. "It's larger than our stage at the Fitz," she says, referring to the Fitzgerald, the show's home base in St. Paul.
Led by pianist Rich Dworsky, the band cranks into a liberal version of Louis Armstrong's "Struttin' With Some Barbecue."
They've been practicing for a couple of hours when, around 5:30, quietly, from nowhere, appears Garrison Keillor himself. He walks gracefully and lightly, with a long stride that reminds you of Bob Hope's, and stands in front of the band, looking over some papers.
His look surprises you almost as much as it did the first time you ever saw a picture of him. A couple of inches past 6 feet tall, with a prominent cranium, a big jaw, caterpillar eyebrows, and a rubbery face that could have belonged to a woodland wizard imagined in a children's book, he's a guy you'd look at twice even if he weren't famous.
Over his button-down shirt he's wearing a thin, yellowish jacket-like garment, faded jeans that are a good inch too short, and leather sandals. His glasses are propped on his very short hair, which he hasn't bothered to comb today. Some of the musicians worry that Keillor has been cutting his own hair lately.
Listening to the music and looking at his papers, his face storms with strange expressions, either of displeasure or concentration. For a while his features come together into the middle of his face, as if pulled in by a drawstring. Then, looking at his paper alone, he raises his eyebrows and bares his teeth.
"I'm thinking of a Carter family medley," he says. "'Hello, Stranger,' 'Dixie Darling'just the chorusand 'Keep On the Sunny Side.'" He gives it a listen, squints again, and responds with a whole list of precise suggestions having to do with order and key and instrumentation.
His mind is on the music and nothing else. The crew calls him "GK." A staff member warns you that he doesn't always return casual greetings, even from longtime friends. They say Keillor's preoccupations are off-putting only to those who don't know him well.
"Maybe that 'Wildwood Flower,' going out of it," he says. Slowly he seems to relax, first stomping his left foot to the music, then singing in his distinctive voice, dancing around a little. They run through it again. "It's getting a little worse," he says, and the musicians laugh. "I taped what's been done already," says a technician. "Destroy that tape," says GK.
They run through a new version of the novelty song "Tomatoes," which rhymes, from Knoxville to Memphis / Please let me emphas- /ize... Then he swings into a version of "One Night With You," the Elvis tune he seems to like. He smiles and even laughs, a different personality from the guy who walked in.
After the rehearsal, he makes an exception for a local media personality, Colvin Idol, who wants to interview him for public TV. Keillor seems fascinated with his name. "Idol?" he says. "As in those things we're commanded to stay away from?"
They sit in the theater and Keillor tells Idol that Knoxville makes him think of the cities he saw in children's picture books, with the green hills and steeples and the river running through it.
About an hour later he and the crew materialize at the brewpub on Gay Street, sitting at a big table in the most public part of the restaurant. Keillor somehow arrives unnoticed and, with his back to the crowd, goes unrecognized. It's a round table, but Keillor somehow forms the head of it. His guests are deferential. Several of them are Knicks fans, watching the championship game on the television above Keillor's head. Keillor doesn't pretend to be a fan, and when he talks, he has their full attention. His conversation is easy but minimal, made up more of one-line asides than stories. The presidential race comes up, and he speculates that Al Gore might stand a better chance if he spiced up his image with some earrings, "one per lobe," he says, "and a ponytailjust a small one." It's a joke that will somehow make it into the Guy Noir script the following night.
They have a leisurely meal, with dessert: banana pie and ice cream and a hot fudge sundae, passed around the table so everyone can take a bite. They say it's a tradition. For well over an hour they've been sitting together, chatting about music and movies and politics, indulging Ringsak's jokes. Keillor picks up the tab, says an abrupt goodnight and instantly he's up and gone out the front door, alone, with his producer trotting behind him.
Next: On the Air